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Picking Winners

It used to be said that most generals trained their armies to win the last war, but that few were able– or were given the political latitude – to imagine what fighting the next conflict would really be like. In the world of economic development a similar problem exists: more time and money is spent reacting to companies that are unhappy today and worrying about existing industries that are in inevitable decline than building an environment that will attract the high growth companies of the future.

Following a series of recent strategic board meetings and surveys of technology firms in the state, it is clear that CTC members believe the Council needs to focus on both creating that attractive “innovation eco-system” and strongly communicating to our government leaders the benefits of building a serious infrastructure to foster the expansion of our high-quality technology based economy.

Starting today I hope to file a weekly column and then supplement these writings with frequent updates to a more informal daily blog about technology and innovation based growth in the state also entitled “Innovation Matters.” Please take a look and add your comments. Our hope is to use our Connecticut Technology Council family network to start an on-going conversation.

In the past – say, 170 years ago – schools, canals, dams, worker housing, railroads and highways often predated periods of economic growth. We look back and mistakenly believe these investments came after the ancient factories we see throughout the Connecticut landscape. In most cases they came first, and often were significant and difficult financial challenges for governments and individuals.

What are the equivalents of the canals and dams of yesteryear that will entice the 21st century equals of Winchester or United Aircraft to our region? Entrepreneurs today want to be in a political atmosphere that embodies a strong belief in the centrality of technology-driven business models. Whitney, Colt and Sikorsky were each convinced that Connecticut was the place to build for the future. Today the leaders of Florida, North Carolina and Texas are making the same statements. We can too.

Many states are working hard to convey the sense of confidence in the future to entrepreneurs, investors and talented workers that Connecticut has taken for granted for centuries. These states are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in strategic innovation plans aimed at nurturing and supporting their technology infrastructure.

Some common elements of investment include funds for growing graduate programs at universities and support for commercialization through large amounts of government enhanced early stage capital and technical help. Billions are being spent in Georgia, Florida and Arizona to create close-knit communities that attract and network young talent and in new investments in modern transportation and communication systems that can keep an entire region well networked to the rest of the world.

At the Technology Council we are convinced that Connecticut can compete with Boston, Austin, Raleigh and San Francisco for high quality job growth if we plan well and then coordinate the efforts of the public, not for profit and private sectors.

What we need to do is make Connecticut an obvious choice to anyone looking for a great location to develop their company. We can leverage off the continued growth of metro New York but we don’t have to concede that most growth will go to northern New Jersey and up the Hudson Valley. At the same time we can still continue distinguish ourselves as having the best quality of life in the region.

To grow new businesses the first rule to consider is the need to have the entrepreneurs with the best ideas chose us even before we select them and offer our help. Consider the numbers.

If there are only 100 start-ups in the USA today that will grow from their early stage to become big (say $30 million in sales within five years) out of 10,000 high tech hopefuls, the one in ten odds of finding even one is very low. In Connecticut we have identified several high potential firms in our Innovation Pipeline ( Will some of them hit the jackpot? History tells us that about 50 of the concepts with the most promise have already chosen Silicon Valley or greater Boston. It’s hard to beat those odds on our own.

So now we get to the crux of the innovation and economic development game. Some things we can control. For instance, companies need big ideas and Yale, UConn, Wesleyan and other schools are all working on new concepts as powerful as any in the world. So, we have already helped our chances because of the large amount of research money that flows into the state. Great ideas, developed locally, give us a first look at potential companies before managers have even thought about leaving the state and becoming some other location’s big winner.

In the next column I will look at what some other locales are putting on the table to become global innovation centers. Sneak preview: investments in CI and recent announcements about better train service are all good news and steps in the right direction, but the stakes keeping getting higher…

Matthew Nemerson President & CEO Connecticut Technology Council

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